Memories Of Harper Lee From Former Chicago Tribune Reporter And Friend

July 14, 2015

Nelle Harper Lee's signiture

Public Domain

Marja Mills says she went to Monroeville, Alabama in 2001 never dreaming she'd actually meet Harper Lee, or her sister Alice, who handled Nelle Harper Lee's personal affairs. But she had to try.

Before returning to Chicago to write up her feature for the Chicago Tribune on Harper Lee's home town and inspiration for the fictional Maycomb that came to life in To Kill A Mockingbird, she knocked on the door of the house Lee shared with her sister when in Monroeville (Harper Lee split her time between Monroeville and New York City). 

Marja Mills

Author Marja Mills 

Photo Credit: Chris Popio 

To Mills' surprise, Alice Finch Lee opened the door, invited her in and spoke on the record with Mills for several hours -- a journalistic coup. The best reason that Mills can give for the change is that, as avid readers and proponents of education, Nelle Harper Lee and her sister were intrigued by the One Book, One Chicago program that Mills was writing the feature about and happy that To Kill A Mockingbird was the first book chosen.  

That wasn't the only surprise in store for Mills. When she picked up the phone at her hotel shortly after, she was greeted by a voice that said: 

"This is Harper Lee. You've made quite an impression on Miss Alice. I wonder if we might meet." 

Meet they did -- off the record -- and then Mills went home to write her story. She returned several times at the sisters' urging, including to deliver the story to the sisters the night before it was published, and soon found herself moving in next door and becoming friends with them.

The Mockingbird Next Door Book Cover

The Cover of The Mockingbird Next Door

Photo Credit: Penguin Press

Her book is a memoir of the time she spent with Nelle Harper Lee, Alice Finch Lee and their friends in Monroeville, reportedly with the sisters’ permission and help. 

Just before the publication of the book, a statement was released, signed by Harper Lee, saying that Lee did not know of Mills' intentions to write the book and did not approve of it. Alice Lee then sent a letter refuting her sister's statement, saying that her sister's health had declined to the point she could not see or hear well and thus will sign anything placed in front of her by someone she trusts. She wrote that "Nell Harper" no longer has any memory of the event.

Mills says she still goes back to visit many of the Lee sisters' friends and that "I think what happened there has been one of a number of things that have given people concern, including now, about what all is going on."

Mills also spoke about the controversy around the publication of Go Set A Watchman on Tuesday saying that she also has the "mixed feelings" that many have and that a recent New York Times article was among the factors giving her pause. "I think there is good reason to be concerned, but at the same time...we're savoring the opportunity of more wonderful prose from her to enjoy" as well as finding out what happens to the beloved characters of To Kill A Mockingbird

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